By Jim Jones, EMT/CHCM
While I seldom cancel any kind of “survival” training program because of weather, cold rain is an exception. Winter and late fall operations when the temperatures are well below freezing can offer the perfect opportunity to test equipment and skills with a minimum of risk, Snow can be managed and used for shelter building, snow-showing and other winter survival training operations, but cold rain introduces a high risk of hypothermia and other hazards without compensatory training opportunities. The three main counter indications for this kind of operation are:
- Outdoor classes would be almost impossible in cold rain and wind.. Exposing shivering wet participants would counter the main imperatives of cold-weather survival “stay dry and out of the wind”
- Setting up tents and equipment under these conditions will result in everything and everyone getting wet before camp can be established. The dangers of hypothermia would be unavoidable and everything would be frozen that night.
- Driving conditions including possibly ice covered back-roads and whiteout visibility would put everyone in danger
In the case of cold or potentially freezing rain the risks outweigh the training advantages. Testing of rain gear, stoves, fire starting techniques and other “cold wet” survival skills can be done in short exposure classes where shelter is immediately available.
Freezing and Cold Rain are the most dangerous of weather conditions
Of all the hostile weather conditions: cold rain and freezing rain are the most dangerous and should be avoided at all costs. History is filled with horror stories of armies and refuges being caught in such conditions leaving thousands of frozen corpses along the roads. Marathon runners often succumb to irreversible hypothermia after running in rain at temperatures of 50 to 60 degrees. Arctic blizzards and desert heat will not kill you as fast or make survival techniques harder to use than a cold rain. Once the temperatures get below 60-degrees there is only one survival rule “Don’t Get Wet!” Even if you manage to stay out of the actual rain, the humidity will be near to100% and seep through your clothing to steal your warmth.
Obviously a fire is going to be a great way to drive off dampness, but you cannot risk getting soaked trying to start a fire. If you can get a fire going and stock dry wood before the rain starts you should do so. A fire combined with even partial shelter will be a big benefit. A big fire can survive a light rain for some time, but a heavy rain will put any fire out, leaving you wet and could. If you are able to get a fire going or hope to start one when the rain stops, you must try to gather dry wood and protect it from moisture. Cold rain will saturate all available wood and then freeze. Frozen wet wood and dry wood look alike until you waste time and matches trying to burn it. Shelter should be your first priority unless you are already soaked. Getting wet standing by a fire in the rain is not smart. Getting wet trying to start a fire in the rain is not smart. The heat from a fire without shelter will be lost to the wind. Shelter is the first priority! Once cold and/or freezing rain is encountered finding shelter, staying dry and conserving body heat are the primary objectives. Only risk traveling if you have full rain protective clothing or you are sure that you can reach shelter and warmth within an hour or less. Being wet and cold for more than a short time is an invitation to hypothermia and death.
I cannot over-emphasize the importance of carrying rain and wind protective items with you in every pack, vehicle, pocket and purse. When going into the outdoors a good quality poncho or rain suit should always be carried. Survival kits and packs should include heavier rain gear, space blankets, plastic sheets, tents or other shelter systems. Even large sized plastic trash bags can be modified to make serviceable rain suits. Wet and frozen feet can stop you in your tracks and set you up for frostbite and/or “trench foot”. If caught without waterproof footwear a dry pair of socks kept in your pack or under your shirt will be a lifesaver. Dry socks can be used to replace wet ones or to provide emergency mittens to save your hands. Wool and some modern synthetic clothing will retain some body heat even when wet. Select GoreTex ™, RianSuede™ or other water resistant insulated clothing for outdoor activities. These kinds of garments are well worth the investment if you anticipate extended time in the outdoors during wet conditions, but long-term survival still will depend on staying dry or getting dry. Avoid cotton clothing in cool damp weather. Cotton loses all of its insulating value when wet. Under some conditions, wet blankets, clothing and sleeping bags can be “freeze dried” . Wet items can be put out in the cold (below 30-degrees) and allowed to freeze stiff. Once frozen they can be beaten and shaken to knock out the ice crystals. In addition to a SpaceBlanket ™ I carry a white Tyvek ™ suit in my survival packs. These take up very little room, weigh almost nothing and can be used as clothing while my wet clothing is drying not to mention the obvious NBS protection and winter camouflage uses for these suits. The “poor mans rain suit” can be improvised from two heavy duty, 42-gallon trash bags with arm and head holes cut in one and a skirt made of the other tucked into the belt. I carry cheap rain ponchos in ever jacket. Remember: “it’s not what you have that saves you, it’s what you have with you”